sign saying "welcome back friend" in Chandler mall Virus Outbreak Arizona
After being closed for several weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, Chandler Fashion Center Mall welcomes back patrons Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Chandler, Ariz. While the mall was open, many of the chain stores remained closed. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

People can lose their unemployment benefits for choosing not to return to work unless they fall into a list of pandemic-related situations.

Now that most Arizona businesses are allowed to begin reopening, many have quickly started to build up staff and get ready for customers. But some businesses are having trouble finding people willing to come back to work. 

Some owners are blaming the difficulty on the boosted unemployment payments people are receiving now, thanks to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

Normally, the maximum amount of unemployment benefits Arizonans could receive each week would be $240. But those without a job are receiving an extra $600 per week through the federal legislation, sometimes bringing the total to more than their regular wage.

Dave Wells with the Grand Canyon Institute non-partisan think tank also pointed out that some people are being asked to return to work for reduced hours and pay. He said Arizona has a relatively low disregard payment of $30, the amount a person can earn before DES starts taking it away from their benefits.

“Workers currently laid off – and given the option of returning to work for a pay cut but [who] will earn at least $270 a week – are in a horrible dilemma and would likely do what they can to avoid having to go back to work and then get a pay cut and lose benefits,” Wells told The Copper Courier in an email.

But Arizonans who are choosing not to go back to work may be setting themselves up for trouble. Department of Economic Security officials say people can lose their unemployment benefits for choosing not to return to work unless they fall into a list of pandemic-related situations, including:

  • The person has received a COVID-19 diagnosis or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 while seeking a diagnosis.
  • A member of the person’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • The person is caring for a family member or a member of the individual’s household diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • The person is caring for a child or household member and can’t send them to school or another facility as a direct result of the pandemic.
  • The person has been advised to self-quarantine and can’t report to work.
  • The individual or a member of their household is considered at high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19.

“In general, if an employer is practicing social distancing guidelines and operating in accordance with guidance as prescribed by the ADHS or the Governor, and the employee does not meet one of the [pandemic-related scenarios], the employee would be expected to return to work when their employer reopens and recalls them back,” a DES spokesman told The Copper Courier in an email.

Wells said if DES finds a worker continued to receive unemployment benefits when they were not eligible, the worker will receive an overpayment notice.

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Paullette Cano, owner of Times Square Italian Restaurant in Phoenix, told AZ Family that employees she furloughed have told her they make more money on unemployment than they would working for her. 

Cano told AZ Family she plans to report “refusals to work” to DES, something any business can do.

The few people who have applied to work, Cano said, have asked for wages with unemployment benefits in mind. “They’re asking for $20 an hour, which makes it difficult because we operate under slim margins,” Cano said. 

Arizona’s total unemployment payout of $840 per week equates to a wage of $21 per hour, much higher than many service jobs offer.

Currently, the minimum wage in the state is $12 per hour. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is just about equal to a living wage for a single adult, but not enough for anyone who has children.

According to the university, a single parent raising one child needs to make at least $25.16 per hour, while couples with one child need to be making $13.98 per hour each. A couple with only one adult working needs $23.98 per hour.

Tipped workers can be paid even less – $9 per hour – as long as they make more than $12 per hour when tips are included.

Nearly 550,000 Arizonans have applied for unemployment since businesses began shutting down, and CARES Act funding is set to expire July 31.

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